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Wednesday, October 22, 2003
New stereo linked to online music store

Four major Japanese electronics makers on Tuesday unveiled a prototype of an audiovisual system that can download song files from an online store without a PC and is expected to go on sale early next year.

Japanese officials from Sony Corp., Sharp Corp., Pioneer and Kenwood Corp. said there were no overseas plans for the products.

Developed under their joint venture, Any Music Planning Inc., the Linux-based equipment marks the companies' attempt to adapt to rapid changes engulfing the music recording industry in the Internet age.

All four test models shown Tuesday resembled a traditional stereo system except they have Ethernet ports and liquid crystal displays automatically set to access a Web site run by LabelGate, a Japanese online music shop that opened in August.

Users will be able to browse, download, store and play song files, record them on a mini-disc or transfer them to other digital music devices, said Any Music CEO Fujio Noguchi. The equipment also works like any other audio entertainment system, he added.

"Ultimately, our dream is to make the service a worldwide standard," Noguchi told reporters. Any Music spokesman Shinichi Koyanagi later said: "First, we want to focus on the Japanese market."

With the launch date set for some time in the spring 2004, details about how the service will work remain sketchy.

It's unclear, for instance, whether Any Music hardware will restrict the number of PCs users can copy songs on, as U.S.-based services such as iTunes and MusicMatch do. Also, officials refused to say how much the products would cost, and said that LabelGate hasn't decided how much to charge per song.

The service will be separate from the one LabelGate offers to PC users. Currently, LabelGate, which has music licensing rights with some of Japan's biggest recording companies and has a rotating selection of tens of thousands of Japanese pop tunes and a limited amount of Western music, charges 210 yen (US$1.90) per song file.

LabelGate officials couldn't be reached for figures showing how many times the company's music-playing software had been downloaded.

The four electronics makers are betting that as broadband services and other fast Internet connections spread in Japan, they can attract consumers who prefer downloading music to a trip to the music store. They hope Net-savvy youngsters and adult music aficionados alike will be drawn to the prospect of convenience and better acoustic sound.

Moriyuki Okada, who heads Sharp's AV systems department, said the venture partners are also trying to diversify their product lineup in an intensely competitive consumer electronics marketplace that has been hit hard by Japan's long-running economic slowdown.

"Our industry is in crisis. We want to emerge from that by offering new business ideas," Okada said.

Noguchi said he expects Any Music's Linux-based system to be compatible with Sony's NetMD, which plays the mini-discs that are more compact and more common in Japan than CDs for music downloads. He said he hopes the equipment will also be capable of downloading to any digital device that runs Windows Media Audio software.

Four other Japanese audiovisual equipment makers, NEC Electronics, Denon, Yamaha and Onkyo, are also developing products for the Any Music platform. None of them are expected to offer e-mail functions or links to online music sites other than LabelGate.

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